Social Innovation with Clout: Insights from Canada’s social impact ecosystem

From Olivia Clark-Moffatt

In June, donkey wheel foundation, sent a group of leaders from Australia’s social innovation sector to draw insight from the Canadian social impact ecosystem.  The trip visited Montreal and Toronto (some participants also visited Winnipeg or Atlanta), experiencing some top examples of grassroots initiatives through to big organisations and their role in the ecosystem.  TDi Principal, Olivia Clark-Moffatt, was one of the 12 journeymen (and women).  These are her reflections and insights from the trip.

 

What I felt

Canada is familiar and yet foreign. It seems to be a nation with a strong social agenda and greater depth to its shared responsibility for social innovation.  In this way, it feels similar to New Zealand’s national social agenda, and different to Australia's, which perhaps takes on American influence of individualism and protectionism, making social outcomes feel like a ‘favour’.

 

I returned with a feeling of envy for Canada's national spirit of generosity and how established the ecosystem is.  The complexity of developing a generous narrative and building a story of wealth through diversity is a significant challenge for social innovation in Australia.  Perhaps summed up by the Chinese Proverb the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, the second-best time is now.

 

What I saw

True to TDi’s own belief that business is an important driver of systems-change, the social solutions we visited were driven by entrepreneurs.  Organisations or project teams would proactively solve genuine problems, and then seek reinforcement and mainstream support from Government or research partners.

 

The MaRS centre in Toronto, which we visited, is a great example of this.  It was started in 2000 by 14 civic leaders with a vision for a downtown innovation hub.  They pooled together $14m and garnered support from Government and their networks to build a ‘co-habitation’ space for innovation.  In their own words, it’s a place where innovators – whether in business, research, education, startups – are able to meet, connect and collaborate to solve the biggest problems facing Canada and the world.  Like a living organism, the solutions that have been dreamed up in this environment have created more businesses, jobs and dollars for the economy, self-proving and expanding the centre’s site.

 

At a grassroots level, the initiatives and businesses felt much more commercially sustainable than Australia, while the big players in the system had bigger pools of money, more sophisticated outlooks, more influence (through policy in Government), and more depth (through research partners) all of which amassed to more agency for change.

 

For example, the McConnell foundation, a philanthropy foundation at their heart, who take on so much more than that in order to make change in the eco-system.  In their own words:

“Re-designing systems calls for new financial arrangements, policy innovation, new relations between government, civil society and the private sector, equitable and effective engagement with affected populations, and alignment with values that foster social creativity and mutual respect.”

Then, there were just the completely new ideas that Australia does not yet have.  We visited Wasan Island, which label themselves a social innovation retreat.   Wasan is a private Island where teams and collaborators go to disconnect from the world and quietly, spiritually, in conversation and peacefully solve societal problems.   The seclusion and spiritually of the island give it it’s point of difference and some of the world’s most prominent businesses and thinkers have been invited to have a facilitated conversation.  We talk a lot about ‘slow-thinking’ at TDi – the opportunity to step back and plug into the bigger picture.  I like the idea of a space that provides a different energy for that than the corporate three-day sprint.

 

So, where are Australia’s gaps?

As mentioned at the start of this reflection, I think that Australia has a long way to go in terms of creating and nurturing a culture and environment that believes in social inclusion rather than seeing it as a favour.   We need a better balance of competition and cooperation – less American influence, more Eastern philosophy.

 

For me, the other piece that missing is a maturity in thinking around upfront investment.  We’re a typically risk averse culture which is inhibiting our ability to prove out successful, socially-driven businesses and create momentum in the ecosystem.   We need the opportunity to get a couple of runs on the board to make a dent, generate interest and trust, and to start building tomorrow’s ecosystem, now.

 

A place for TDi in the system

Interestingly, during my time in Canada, I didn’t see anything like TDi in the ecosystem.   There was no body that connected in to both the players at the top end and the grassroots.  I could see us playing the role of aggregator or guild-creator in this system, collating people around ideas, and helping them to build the structures and systems to solve, not just the words (policy and research).  I think this is an under-established area in the Australian ecosystem which presents an opportunity for us. To really think about unqiue ways to bring together social innovators for scale and impact that are true to them (not the charitable nor commercial sectors.)

 

In sum, the best thing about this time away has been the renewal of the call into the unknown. The future is not waiting for us, it demands to be co-created.


TDi's Reading Guide

Annie, CEO – Annie is a perfectly primed systems-challenger, with experience in starting businesses, community leadership, impact-investing, and commercial business.

I have many favourite reading resources.  I’m thankful that we live in a time where information and ideas can be so freely shared.  I’ve chosen Reinventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux. I remember when I first read this about 2.5 years ago it awakened and gave language to a stack of idea I’d been playing with.  I remember thinking “this is great, but is it really possible?”

TDi has begun its ‘teal journey’ and we have a long way to go, but I now not only believe it is possible but it is the future. We’ll be left behind without this type of thinking and practice.

  

Liv, Principal – Liv leads TDI’s Australian business, bringing an entrepreneurial ‘hack’ and spiritual lens to everything she does, and has an ability to instantly connect with our partners.

How to Lead a Quest: a handbook for pioneering executives by Jason Fox – this book combines entrepreneurial Hutzpah with big systems thinking.  I love that it enables genuine delivery around new strategic thinking.  So often great ideas fail to translate properly to the management plan.

 

 

 

 

Anna, Principal – Anna leads TDi’s business in the Pacific, approaching everything she does with curiosity, generosity and professionalism which means she takes our partners to thoughtful, impactful, long-lasting solutions.

Ripples from the Zambezi was recommended to Annie and I by an Australian farmer, living and working in Vanuatu.  We were sitting under the shade of his verandah trying to translate our work into his context, when he interjected and asked if we’d read Ernesto Sirolli’s book.  Turns out we shared a lot more in common than we’d thought.  Since that time, I’ve recommended this book to everyone who is curious about good development and unintended consequences in social change.

 

 

Isaac, Senior Consultant – as our ‘facilitator extraordinaire’, Isaac has a metaphor, case study, quote, or book reference for any situation an entrepreneur is facing.

Mine is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield.

A lot of my favourite authors said that this was their favourite book, and they weren’t kidding – it’s a gem.  This book will make you uncomfortable in a good way, and teaches you how to get difficult things done.  When people start to lose momentum in their startup, this is the book I buy them.

 

 

Carlo, Senior Consultant – with a varied history in human resources and operations, Carlo is equal parts passion and profession, and he works closely and genuinely with our partners.

My favourite reading resource at the moment is the Stanford Social Innovation Review – an incredible magazine and blog rather, than a book.  Given my masters, I tend to struggle to sit down with a book at the moment, and so the SSIR is my go to source for cross-sector solutions to global problems and an inspiring world view of the social impact ecosystem.

At TDi we make a conscious decision to see the strengths in systems rather than focusing on the deficiencies and viewing them as challenges or problems. We refer to this as an assets approach. What some people might see as ‘problems’ we view as opportunities to design more creatively and innovatively.

This latest article from SSIR is a wonderful example of why this approach is so powerful for our international and local work:  https://ssir.org/articles/entry/cocreating_with_the_base_of_the_pyramid#

 

Shannon, Platforms Manager – the whole world could be collapsing, and Shannon would keep her cool, which is why she keeps the TDi ship running tight.

Mine is Brene Brown’s Dare to Lead… no surprises there probably!  I've been following Brene Brown and her various books and talks for some years now, mainly from a personal perspective post having children. I apply her techniques and learnings everyday at home as well as at work.

When her latest book, Dare to Lead came out, I was quick to grab it. Her tips around vulnerability in the workplace, 'Paint Done' and giving and receiving feedback are so practical and useful. We are now implementing them as common practise at TDi.

 

 

Erin, Consultant – with a natural inclination to understand ‘why’ and connect with people, Erin is good at getting to the root cause of problem or finding lateral opportunities.

I’ve had to narrow it down to a top two.  Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnerman and Deep Work by Cal Newport.

Thinking Fast and Slow is about how our brain works when we make decisions, which is both interesting to understand, and has also been SO helpful in my work.  Navigating human behaviour is the hardest part of any job, but especially when trying to understand why more people aren't socially and environmentally conscious.  I believe that this book is key to helping unlock social and environmental change at scale, through change in behaviour at scale.

 

I like Deep Work because it presents a work practice that resonates with me in our increasingly distracting world.  I have implemented the tips in this book to great benefit of my work output.

 

Ash, Associate – a proud Aboriginal woman and passionate about working for her people and country, Ash is our cultural conduit and an incredibly passionate program manager.

A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. It was a lecture series on societal collapse that travelled across 5 Canadian cities. I know from my own personal experience that when you make the same mistake more than once, you start to look at new ways to do business, this applies to life as well. This book is a great example of how we should learn from history and ensure our society doesn't meet the same fates.  It asks us questions that I face every day working in social enterprises and Indigenous Affairs - Where do we come from? What are we? and most importantly, where are we going?

 

 

Elisa, Bookkeeper and Executive Assistant – Elisa uses equal parts heart and mind in her work which make her a grounding force for the TDi team.

I first read Utopian Man many years ago, but it sticks in my mind still today.  It’s a fictional telling of the life of E.W. Cole, the mind behind Melbourne’s famous Cole’s Book Arcade (which operated from 1883-1929).  I think he is a great example of 'Do good and make money'.

His arcade sounds like a place of wonder, with a fernery, musical band, confectionery stalls, monkeys and over two million books all offered at fair prices because he wanted to create an inviting place that everyone could access, not just the wealthy.  However, as a practical man, he made his money from his printing press (which he also used to print thought leadership pieces).

 

I've read elsewhere about how he was able to connect to people through emotion and sincerity which is why he was able to influence. So, I like that he influenced people to think differently through wonderment.  If I had a time machine, I would love to go back and see the arcade!


The stories we tell ourselves

If you have ever dreamt of a society with great wealth, distributed fairly and intended exclusively for the wellbeing of its people then maybe you have dreamt of Europe’s first great civilization – the Minoan empire on the island of Crete, 4600 years ago.

The Minoans created a seafaring empire. Their ships sailed to all points of the Mediterranean peninsula for trade. They built well-developed roads connecting 100 cities across the island of Crete.

For 500+ years they lived in peace. The Minoan capital of Knossos had no defense walls and no army. The capital did not feel threatened by the other cities in their domain, nor any of its citizens. Its rule of law relied upon equitable distribution of wealth and strong, connected leadership.

The Minoan palace was the heart of the city. It had 1,400 rooms, which housed schoolrooms, government services, artist workshops and theatres. Wide corridors and large rooms made space for thousands of citizens to come and go.

Archaeologists found impressive multi-coloured wall paintings depicting day-to-day life and the Minoan’s reverence for nature. People, animals and plants were joyously painted in bright colours. It is also clear from these paintings that women had an important role in all aspects of society; if not higher than men, than certainly equal. They competed on an equal basis to men in the athletic games, even in the most daring events.

 

 

The Minoan civilization came to an end in 1630 BC when a volcano on a neighboring island triggered a tsunami and ash clouds. Archaeologists found that the buildings had fallen outwards as they collapsed, presumably full with water.

Today the Minoan society seems quite remarkable. First that it existed and second that it is so little known. A European civilization that was well off and shared that wealth and power among its citizens, and revered the earth’s living systems? Doesn’t seem possible. But it was, and it lasted for 500 years. 500 years of a different world-view, standing in clear contrast to most, if not all, ancient (and many modern) European civilizations that have sought to accumulate wealth and power. It can’t help but inspire optimism… and we can’t help wondering, what might we begin to build if we truly believed in our own wisdom and generosity?


Investing in more than a business: Investor engagement with Essence of Fiji

Recently we took Deb Sadranu, Founder and Managing Director of Essence of Fiji to meet with our investment partners, Enterprise Angels in New Zealand.  Enterprise Angels has facilitated over $40M of investment in 80 different early stage and established businesses since launching in 2008. Founder Bill Murphy and Impact Investment manager, Kristen Joiner (pictured) are proactively building interest in impact investing amongst their members and many have expressed a strong interest in doing good and making money. 

We have been working with Essence of Fiji, in partnership with Pacific RISE since mid 2018. Enterprise Angels generously hosted TDi and Essence of Fiji for the week and provided us with a unique opportunity to present informally to their network and observe their pitch night.

We chatted with Deb at the end of her trip to get her key insights.

 

Tell us about the experience… 

Deb: I’ve had a fabulous week!  I’ve spent this week learning and preparing for a final investment pitch in August and the experience has been invaluable.

I got the opportunity to attend my first pitch night and listen to others pitch.  The main thing I got out of this was actually what I should avoid when I pitch in August.  It was also good to see who was in the audience and what they ask.

I also got the opportunity to share my pitch and field questions in a more informal setting over breakfast with some of the investors. This confirmed all my strengths as a business: 20 years of history, my knowledge and expertise, and our sustainability focus. It makes you appreciate things that you bring to the table.

I would not have been prepared without the input and support of TDi, especially on the financial side of things.  As an entrepreneur, I know my business and customer well but not the financial jargon.  For example, on the first night when I was watching the pitches, one guy was doing really well but fell apart at the end because he couldn’t answer some of the questions. I can’t help but feel like had he had support of TDi, he would’ve been more confident, and able to answer those questions.

 

What have you learnt?

Deb:  Without this experience, I don’t think I would have considered things that would seal the deal.  Like, being prepared for questions, reviewing and knowing my financials and using the right language.  It gives you such an advantage in being able to answer all questions asked of you and following through with validation.

You get an idea of what investors care about.  In the past, I’ve been quite optimistic in my business forecasts.  What TDi taught me during this process, is to represent my projections more conservatively because it takes the pressure off myself to meet returns on investment.  I feel relieved because analysing things a bit more closely, we realised we could reduce the size of the building [our planned investment] without impacting earnings and it’s actually more efficient than the original proposal, and takes the pressure off the investment.

It also confirmed our value as a successful, Pacific Islands-based social enterprise.  None of the Angel Investors I spoke to had a background in impact, so it was an exciting opportunity for Essence of Fiji to set a benchmark for impact, and success in the Pacific Islands.  The impact message really resonated with investors, and their advice to me was to lead with it. I’m proud that, come August, we will be the first impact pitch for this group.  It shows it can be done and puts the Pacific hub on the map!

The best part was, I left with the confidence that we can do this well.  So much time, effort, money, psych prep goes into a pitch like this – you’ve got to make it worth it.   As an entrepreneur, instinctively, you want to do it all, but every bit of outside help, helps to see the bigger picture. I’m so glad I did this.

 

What does it mean for you…

Deb: Over the past 20 years, I’ve never had capital injection into the business – everything has been done from the company – and I’m proud of that.  However, with the expansion I’m attempting needs a big injection.

It’s a crucial stage of expansion and growth, where we want investment to build a purpose-built building, which reduce overheads dramatically (tens of thousands a month which could be better spent elsewhere).

More than that, it’s allowing us to prepare for the bigger picture.  I moved to Fiji and began Essence of Fiji ten years ago because I could see the need for education for girls.  Once I set up the school and employment pathways were created, I saw a bigger responsibility beyond providing employment.

The business has become a community for the women I employ who would otherwise feel isolated and struggle to find the support they need. Through the business, we have nurtured equality, their understanding of their social standing within their family, and more recently creating a safe environment for transgender people.

TDi talk about doing ‘good and making money’.  For me, one doesn’t work without the other.  When you’re passionate about impact, and you run a business – the balance happens naturally.  They interact and evolve together.  The business evolves, because I have empathy – I know and work with the women in villages – and understand their needs. Without this, the business would not be sustainable.